2 September 2007

Goodbye, cruel Word

A personal history of electronic writing

For the first time, I no longer have a copy of Microsoft Word installed on either of my computers. That’s some change. I wrote my first two books, and many hundreds of articles, in Word. But I’m writing my third book in an inexpensive yet wonderful piece of Mac-only software written by a single person instead of a “business unit” at Redmond. Scoured of Word, my computers feel clean, refreshed, relieved of a hideous and malign burden. How did it come to this?

I remember when Word was all clean and sci-fi and inspiring, on the sharp monochrome screens of late-1980s and early-1990s Macs. When I was at university, hardly anyone owned a computer. We wrote our final dissertations on Mac Classics running Word in the college Computer Room. Afterwards, when I began to write for newspapers, the first electronic writing tool I owned was one of these:

For some reason the fact that this is called an Elektrische Schreibmaschine in German makes me feel all nostalgic for the ultrasmooth Kraftwerk future it seems I was living back then without even realising it, tapping out theatre reviews on a six-line green LCD (not even backlit), and then watching the typewriter daisywheel chatter back and forth to print a hard copy, that I would then take to the library and send to the TLS or the Independent, via a facsimile machine, at 10p per page.

After a while I was able to buy a black-and-white PowerBook 520 running Word 5:

Screenshot: Dwayne J Perry

Many people agree that revision 5.1a, specifically, was the best version of Word that Microsoft has ever shipped, combining utility and minimalist elegance with reliability. Sadly for me, although it wasn’t strictly necessary, after a few years and a colour Performa I “upgraded” to Word 98, and somehow the magic was gone. Yes, I turned off all the crappy lurid toolbars and tried to make the compositional space as simple as possible, but by this time Word was stuffed with all kinds of “features” that let you print a pie-chart on the back of a million envelopes or publish your cookery graphs to your “world wide web home-page”, and it already felt to me that Word was only grudgingly letting me write nothing but, you know, words. Trigger Happy got out of Word 98 and onto the streets, but not without routine crashes and the occasional catastrophic loss of a few finely honed paragraphs.

I was still somehow brainwashed, though, as perhaps many people still are today, into believing that Word was the “serious” word-processor: the professional tool for anyone who did heavy lifting with language. Part of the reason for Microsoft’s success in this propaganda trick, I think, was its brilliant choice of file-name extension. Think about it: .doc. That means “document”. A .doc just is a document, right? And a document has to be a .doc. Stands to reason. Anything else would look amateurish. If they had called their files .mwd or something, we might have all jumped ship a lot sooner.

Anyway, through inertia, through not even thinking about whether alternatives existed, I continued to stick with Word. And then, like a cunning crack dealer, Microsoft threw me a freebie twist that had me hooked anew. It was Live Word Count, which (IIRC) appeared in Word v. X.

Ah, Live Word Count. When pretty much everything you write has a word-limit attached, and you realise after long and tragic experience that exceeding that limit will not cause the editor to expand the space available to you in tribute to your genius but will instead cause the sub-editors unerringly to home in precisely on the bits that must not be cut if the article is still to make any sense and cut them, then you need to know at every stage how much you have written, and how much you have left to go. With Live Word Count, there was no longer any need to hit a key combination every 10 seconds to check the word-count (which was often a way of procrastinating). The word count was permanently right there in the toolbar, updating as you typed. It was a beautiful thing, a real boon to anyone who wrote to predetermined length. So I couldn’t leave Word now, could I?

(In the mean time, I also had one of these. It was for filing articles while travelling, but I often preferred to write on that machine, with its small monochrome LCD, even when my desktop or laptop Mac was available. So something, some unexamined preference, was percolating in my mind. Eventually the Psion broke, and nothing as good has replaced it as an ultramobile writing tool. So much for progress.)

Anyway, a few more years, and eventually Unspeak got out of Word v. X on my PowerMac G5 and on to the streets, but not without routine crashes and the occasional catastrophic loss of a few finely honed paragraphs. (Sound familiar?) And then I began to feel a vague dissatisfaction. My eye started roving. I would check out the other word-processors walking down the street, observing their smooth lines and lithe swing, imagining what it would be like to be with them instead.

Crucially, Live Word Count became available in a range of other programs. (Amazingly, though, it seems that PC users did not get a live word count from Microsoft until Word 2007.) Mac users can now get it pretty much anywhere. The guitar-rocking genius at Transparent Head even hacked me up a version of TextEdit that had a live word count in a floating window.

The second crucial thing was an answer to prayers I hadn’t even known I was praying. It was Full-Screen Mode, which I first discovered in WriteRoom. ((WriteRoom is Mac-only, but PC users can try a similar experience with JDarkRoom.)) WriteRoom’s slogan is “distraction-free writing”, and it does just what it says on the tin. Your entire screen is blacked out, except for the text you are working on. I now use WriteRoom for all my journalism. When I’m working, the screen of my MacBook looks like this:


Pretty old-skool, huh? It’s perfect: far less temptation to switch to a browser window, much better concentration on the text in front of you. WriteRoom has a “typewriter-scrolling mode”, so that the line you are typing is always centred in the screen, not forever threatening to drop off the bottom, and what you have already written scrolls rapidly up off the top of the screen, dissuading you from idly rereading it. It’s a bit like the endless roll of typewriter paper on which Jack Kerouac wrote On the Road.

So WriteRoom allows me to turn my whizzy modern computer into the nearest equivalent possible (allowing for modern conveniences like backup to the internet and so on) to my old Brother typewriter and its six-line LCD. The focus is on the words and nothing else. Except for that line you can just make out at the bottom left of the screen. That’s the Live Word Count.

Microsoft Word still uses the metaphor of the page, the computer screen that imitates a blank, bounded sheet of physical paper. For me, this is outdated and unimaginative. It has become a barrier rather than a window. And there is always the distraction of changing font and line-spacing, jumping ahead too quickly to imagining the text as a visual, physical product instead of a process, a fluid semantic interplay. Instead, turning my MacBook into a kind of replica 1980s IBM machine, with the words glowing and hovering in an interstellar void, is liberating: as though I am composing the Platonic ideal of a text that might eventually take many different forms.

Through WriteRoom I then discovered Scrivener, a more sophisticated program with excellent features for managing very large documents or document collections: like a book. I couldn’t have written Unspeak, with its many hundreds of footnotes, in WriteRoom; but I could have in Scrivener. I’m writing my next book in Scrivener, and a significant part of my enjoyment of the process is that I’m not doing it in Word, so somehow it doesn’t feel so much like cubicular, fluorescent-lit work. And it can also do Platonic simplicity. When working on a chapter, I set Scrivener up to give me exactly the same full-screen orange-on-black view as my WriteRoom environment above, with one exception: the Live Word Count doesn’t appear unless you mouse over the bottom of the screen. Which is perfect for writing a book, where length is not crucial on a paragraph-to-paragraph basis, and it eliminates the last possible distraction from your mindworld.

And imagine trying the following with Microsoft – when I first used Scrivener I was a bit irritated that the cursor was a thin blinking line, which I found interfered with my new-found writing Zen. So I posted on the programmer’s forum saying could we please maybe have the same square, non-blinking block cursor as you get in WriteRoom? With the next beta, he had done it. That’s customer service. ((As Scrivener’s creator relates, he emailed Jesse Grosjean, Writeroom’s author, wondering how he did the block-cursor thing; very generously, Grosjean just gave him the code, and even recommends Scrivener on his own website.))

Am I not worried that WriteRoom and Scrivener, delightful though they are, are small products from tiny outfits, not “supported” by the corporate might of a large company such as Microsoft? No, I’m not. Because actually my writing is now more secure. Instead of a bloated proprietary file format like .doc, both programs use accessible formats – .txt, .xml, .rtf ((RTF is actually proprietary, originally developed by DEC and now owned by Microsoft, but it’s so widespread now that (fingers crossed) they won’t be able to break it.)) – that (as far as one can predict these things) will be readable forever. My new book is one big “project” in Scrivener, but under the hood each chapter is a universally accessible .rtf file, which can be opened and used in a multitude of other programs.

The last question is one of interoperability, and on first sight it’s a serious one. Surely if everyone else is using Microsoft Word and we are sending documents back and forth to each other, then I need to use Microsoft Word too? I imagine that kind of reasoning sells the majority of new copies. But for me it doesn’t matter at all. If I just need to read a Word document, I can open it in pretty much any Mac program. If I need to exchange files back and forth using comments or Track Changes, I can do that through Google Apps or Pages. If someone really insists on sending me a Word document so festooned with all its formatting “features”, tables, graphics, and so on that it doesn’t work in another program, I am just likely to respond: What the fuck?

So that’s how it is now. I write within the pure, glowing universes of Scrivener and WriteRoom. I send articles to the Guardian as plain-text rather than .doc. I am confident that I will be able to open those articles and the chapters of my book again, if I want to, in 30 years’ time. And now a 1000-word review weighs 4K instead of 30K. I weep at all the innocent electrons I wastefully killed over the years, sending those massive, lumbering Word documents through the internet. I apologise for my particle profligacy. I have learned my lesson. Goodbye, cruel Word. ((Update 15/08/2011: Scrivener for Windows is now in beta. The best PC equivalent of Writeroom is probably the excellent Q10. This essay now also appears in Mauk & Metz (eds.), The Composition of Everyday Life.))

  • ste

    I almost switched to a Mac for the slightly-too-in-love-with-itself Scrivener but then decided all the options would distract as much as help. JDarkRoom doesn’t have the typewriter scrolling mode. Can I justify an expensive new laptop to run a piece of software to turn it into a DEC VT102?


    Are there internerd social rules for a first post on a friend’s new website? I should say ‘Great site, BTW!’ or something but it seems a bit crass. Perhaps something that shows I’ve done my research like, ‘It’s way better than StevenPoole.com, seriously, well done.’

  • It might interest you to know that WriteRoom is available as part of the MacToSchool bundle. The bundle includes a number of programs with a total value of over $300, but is available at the MacToSchool.org site for only $50. The bundle will be available until the middle of September.

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  • I’ve been writing prose almost exclusively in BBEdit for years. YMMV! :-)

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  • Ste: I know that as a comrade in writing, you need Scrivener. Also, a black MacBook just looks so much cooler in the coffee shop, don’t you think?

    pudge: okay, you win the hardcore prize. ;)

  • Steven,

    I completely relate. I haven’t been able to bring myself to uninstall but using Pages 08 and Scrivener, I’ve not booted it in quite some time. Maybe it is time for me to remove it as well.


  • JR

    Mellel: Word + WriteRoom packed together. Mellel can do the same (hidden icons, black screen with text only).

  • Dan

    I wrote my dissertation in WriteRoom for much the same reasons. That with some somafm in the background and a zero distraction environment was reached. It’s good stuff and I’m glad to see it getting attention.

  • Amanda Willis

    I do all my fiction writing in Avenir:


    It has a very nice distraction-free fullscreen mode like WriteRoom, but lots of other goodies especially for fiction writers like word frequency counting, daily goals, and annotations.


  • If you like the Writeroom experience but don’t own a Mac or don’t want to install anything, there’s a free online equivalent called Writer.

  • I can’t say I blame you Steven, Word is pretty horrendous now, although PowerPoint takes badness to a whole new level.

  • I’ve been a Nisus Express user for years now, but I think even it is beginning to acquire more baggage than I really want, I seem to spend more and more of my time with the toolbar hidden and the draw just showing me a word count. I might try downgrading to Scrivener and see how I get on with that.

  • I identify with your writing experience on the Brother, my version being a Smith-Corona (single-line LCD) which I still have in my closet.

    I’ve never really liked Word (after 1990) for the Mac, and gravitated to WordPerfect. In terms of wordprocessing, I have been suffering since the end of Mac OS 9.

    I’ve given Scrivener two half-hearted tries, and your article will get me to try again. My current solution, is a program called Tinderbox by Eastgate Systems.

    The program has a long learning curve (took me a year to really figure out up from down), but the program is very powerful. While it can be used as a simple typing interface, the value of the program is that it allows you to create a file structure with your own metadata. It is more akin to a database for wordprocessing but even that is a ham-handed description. It’s .tbx files are simple XML.

    But my comment isn’t intended as a plug for Tinderbox (of which I am only a satisfied user).

    I mainly want to acknowledge that there is something very wrong with the state of the art of wordprocessing programs and I think many technically competent writers (not programmers) wish something existed to fill the gap. I want something very much like WriteRoom but that has a footnote mechanism that allows you to write note text with the context in full view.

    So, thank you for the thoughtful write up. I look forward to checking out _Unspeak_.

    Johnnie Wilcox
    aka mistersquid

  • Just another “hard line” Microsoft basher who criticizes MS Word because he doesn’t understand and/or appreciate its advanced features and design.

    “I don’t understand this and I’m too lazy to learn it! Let’s bash it!”

    Nevermind the fact that ANY printed document can be generated in MS Word…

  • anna katzner

    The original Scrivener website seems to be dead at the moment (“grubered”? “fireballed”?), but you can still get a lot of technical info about Scrivener via macupdate.com:


  • brock

    Good for you and good luck. While I spend a lot of my time writing, (reports, proposals, etc) I have never understood what is so distracting about a word processor in general. The blank screen with just words does exactly the opposite for me. I feel trapped in the words, almost claustrophobic.

    With the last version of Pages, I have now pretty much dumped Word although I still use it because our company uses nothing else. They don’t have to know about my Pages affliction.

  • Andrew

    For those of you who are reading this article looking for alternatives to Word, I’ve gotta plug Mellel (http://www.redlers.com). It’s got a full-screen mode like WriteRoom, and is entirely styles driven. I’ve been using it for the last two years, and I’m definitely hooked.

    It’s got a bit of a learning curve at first, but once you get going with it, you’ll wonder how you ever survived in Word. Plus it integrates with bibliographic software (Bookends) and its format is XML so you can apply XSLTs to convert it to other formats (LaTeX, for example.)

  • I switched away from Word after almost 10 years when Pages was released. It wasn’t always easy in the early days with Pages, but it’s grown into a very sweet word processor for my needs, which often include diagram layout with words.

    2 years without Office, and now Numbers lets me abandon Google Docs as well. Things keep looking brighter :)

  • Sami

    Ulysses is somewhat sleeker than Scrivener, but otherwise similar:
    It also features full screen mode, chapter management, word count etc., however no footnotes, no PDF/image/web page storage, and no screenplay mode, as it is aimed more at the “literary” writer. Sometimes I miss these things, but in general I find it pretty versatile.
    Ulysses exports as RTF, DOC, LaTeX, or PDF, while internally files are saved as TXT (an important matter, if you wonder, whether the software will still run – or the company still exist – after the next major OS upgrade).

  • Quix

    “although PowerPoint takes badness to a whole new level” – WOPR

    Amen, brother (or sister). I really thought Microsoft would do the typical Microsoft thing with PowerPoint 2007 and lift some of the beauty from Apple’s Keynote (in addition to adding a bunch of new, useless features, another “Microsoft thing”).

    Nope. Same crappy-looking presentations with a frustrating new interface. Nice work as always, MS!

    I am encouraged that people are starting to reject the “More is More!” philosophy that is Microsoft and choosing more “elegant” (dare I use the word?) apps to get the job done.

    I uninstalled Office when iWork ’08 was announced.

    Microsoft’s stranglehold on the planet will soon be but a bad memory…

  • The last two comments mention it in passing and I’m surprised no one else mentioned it before them: How about (La)TeX? Plain text, small sizes, able to open it 30 years from now, separates markup from content, handles footnotes extremely well (BibTeX), etc. And nothing really around today can touch it if you need to insert a formula, though I guess that last feature isn’t such a big deal to many.

  • Joachim

    Nobody has mentioned Jer’s Novel Writer so far (www.jerssoftwarehut.com).

    JNW is using the endless paper metaphor that Steven mentioned above, has tweakable full screen mode, a useful if somewhat rudimentary database, a multi-page notes drawer AND – a perfect implementation of margin notes.

    It’s fired my inspiration like nothing else. No wonder I never got far on my novel using W-d…

  • Peter
  • Fred Hamranhansenhansen

    The last time I used Word it was because a publisher demanded that I turn in book chapters using their Word template. Ironically, the book was about a Web publishing system that gracefully handled text, HTML, XML, and more, and even in beta it did not crash like Word and I was left wondering why I wasn’t just writing the book in the app I was writing about. At one point a Word document became “corrupted” and we had to go back to a previous version and redo the work since. The experience was draining, it felt like fighting with Word, there was never a time where it was supportive of my work. It is not a writing tool, it is not even a good typewriter replacement and that’s Microsoft’s core business (replacing the Selectric in offices worldwide).

    I use BBEdit now to write text, as well as write HTML, CSS, JS and a little PHP. In all cases every character is important and BBEdit treats it that way. I set the font to Monaco 14 and get big smooth letters with accurate spacing so I never guess about one or two spaces, it is easy to write, easy to edit, easy to store, easy to share. Plain Unicode text with Unix line breaks is as close to universal text as you will find. And BBEdit has never crashed on me in 10 years which I still find to be incredible. I’ve never lost a single character of text. There is a visceral feeling of reliability that contributes to writing-focus not computer-focus.

    Also BBEdit is very scriptable, you can write a short AppleScript for tasks you do again and again, like say you routinely find-and-replace 10 phrases you can make a single script that does all of them as one step on any document or folder of documents or selection of documents. It’s a power tool for text, a Photoshop for text.

    There is a free version called TextWrangler that is quite good also, you are better there than in Word. TextWrangler is a great addition to the built-in iLife in a Mac. Anyone who is using TextEdit owes themselves a look at TextWrangler, it’s much, much better.

    The fact is, Microsoft’s software is not professional grade. They use an experimental, radical form of software development that is more akin to a game of telephone than a collaborative project and has never produced anything with any quality. The people who create Word are as helpless to improve it as their miserable users. Text-editing is such a simple technical matter at this point in computer history that what separates good text-editing apps from bad is a little art, the features we love in BBEdit or WriteRoom or Scrivener are artistic touches that Microsoft is not capable of.

  • James

    Norm, thanks for the laughs.

    Because you can’t be serious :)

  • Re. Norm’s comment: “the fact that ANY printed document can be generated in MS Word…”

    Wrong, wrong, wrong, and then again wrong. That’s why so many people have used Adobe InDesign, PageMaker (and even Quark XPress from time to time); because Word is so wonderful at page layout.

    Personally, what I’ve often found Word likes to do is change a 40-page proposal into a 300-page monstrosity (with, inexplicably, 1 line of text on each page) twenty minutes before it needs to be printed and delivered. This has happened several times.

    BBEdit is the answer for writing; then use a real page-layout application for page layout, and then Word can’t ruin your day.

  • I use Mellel and Pages. I use them because my ideal text processor just doesn’t exist. My ideal would be some sort of mixt of LATEX and VIM with a good deal of friendliness.

    When we write, we know what we’re doing. When we type a title, an abstract, a subtitle, a paragraph, when we quote, we know what we’re doing. Applying styles is just a way to show what things are. It’s part of the text processing.

    Unfortunately, IMO, our tools have some progress to do in the styling. Presently, either you write all your text, then come back on it, select your title, apply the style, select a quote, apply the style, etc. (yay ! Pages has multiple selections), or you do it while writing, which is a distraction. Or you type the code, like in most LATEX editors, while writing or after you’ve finished. Not really friendly.

    My ideal text processor would have a command mode. Command mode, command line, we’ve come to be afraid even of the words. We shouldn’t. A command mode would just make all your keys function keys. You fire your text processor, it opens in command mode (let you chose the kind of document, or open on the default), waiting for you first order. You type T for title, and it goes automatically in edition mode, centered, bold, with the required font-size. You hit Enter, it goes back to command mode. Hit “t”, you have a subtitle. Hit “p”, a paragraph; “l”, a new line, “q”, a quote… No need to write a command, no need to go to the mouse to select some option in a menu, styling in your workflow, without distraction. Plus, it wouyld still be possible to disable the command mode, and work the traditional way.

    I wish I was a developper.

  • As Peter said above, I’m curious what you think about Bean? As a student, who doesn’t have the cash to shell out on WriteRoom or Scrivner, I use bean because it doesn’t try to do everything for all users like Word or OpenOffice/NeoOffice. It’s just a simple yet still nicely featured word processor.

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  • Chris

    I did the same thing as you last year. I realized that the only thing I used Word for was applying styles. My personal style library hadn’t changed meaningfully in at least five years. Everything else in Word was superfluous. It’s not a bad program in my opinion, but it’s not a good writing environment and it’s not a particularly professional tool either. I spent some time looking at alternatives and eventually settled on LaTeX with TeXShop. LaTeX is plain text where you apply styles textually, which meets my needs perfectly. It has a high learning curve, but once I got my personal styles transferred over from Word I was fine. It handles multiple tables of contents, tables of citations, etc. in a bulletproof fashion, whereas in Word I always had to do a final readthrough and make sure cross-references were properly resolved everywhere (I’ve been burned by Word too many times).

  • Sami

    I recall a briefing for a layout job, when the client called the printer to ask how I was supposed to deliver the matter (meaning: as data or as film). The printer must have thought the client was going to do it all by himself, so when he demanded data, he reminded him loudly (I was sitting on the other side of the table, but still could hear him loud and clear on the phone): “NO WORD! NO EXCEL!”
    So much for “ANY printed document” …

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  • Thanks to all for the interesting links to alternatives. The more the better.


    I want something very much like WriteRoom but that has a footnote mechanism that allows you to write note text with the context in full view.

    If I understand you correctly, Scrivener lets you do exactly that.

    Fred: good points about BBEdit and TextWrangler – I used to use the latter, and am now a newly converted user of TextMate (from which my original post was sent directly to the blog). A highly configurable, Rolls Royce text editor like BBEdit or TextMate is extremely handy, but my own preference is not to use it for the intial draft of an extended prose piece. (AFAIK, no true full-screen view in either.)

    I set the font to Monaco 14

    Monaco FTW!

  • I think Neal Stephenson wrote Cryptonomicon (and maybe other books since then) using emacs. Available on Mac as well as all other platforms in the world.



  • I’ve read a lot of blog posts like this one over the years. They always seem to enthusiastically advocate reinventing the wheel, and they all evade the point.

    Which is:

    Why don’t you just run WordPerfect 5.1 for DOS and be done with it?

  • I adored Cryptonomicon (and Quicksilver, reviewed here). Arguably WriteRoom offers some of what Stephenson likes about emacs. In WriteRoom you have a .txt document, and you fill it with words. There is pretty much nothing else to do. Afterwards, of course, the editing power of emacs is much superior, but I don’t find I often need to do much more than find/replace after proofing on paper (which I still do for book chapters or long articles).


    Why don’t you just run WordPerfect 5.1 for DOS and be done with it?

    You want me to install DOS on my Mac?

  • What a great article, very useful for someone like myself who is looking for a new tool for, you know, WRITING. I hate Word, it gets in my way. I want a software tool that keeps all my notes and reference in handy spots. I also want something that gives me a handy quick overview of what I’ve done, to see how it hangs together (or doesn’t) and lets me move blocks of text easily. I didn’t know such an animal existed, so I have been writing in Quark. Quark, at least, lets you insert boxes of text within your existing text, anywhere you want. It also lets me resize text easily and precisely, as well as change colors. (I realize Word does some of these things, but it’s a pain. Not ‘organic’.) That’s how I begin pulling ideas together, discarding redundant or weak ones, reinforcing recurring ones.

    If any of the many tools mentioned here do this sort of thing better, I am SO there. Thanks to the author and all the commenters, you made my day!

  • Wim

    Ah yes, you are getting old … From now on you’ll spend the years you have left thinking about the olden days.

  • bonaldi

    Worth noting too that WriteRoom supports emacs-style editing keys (as do most Cocoa apps).

    Steven, have you read this about Word 5.1?

    (Also: Monaco 10pt kicks yr fatty Monaco 14pt’s tubby rear.)

  • I wrote a book last year, and had made my mind up that I’d try and avoid Word. I think Word has its virtues, but after looking around, I wanted something that “didn’t get into the way,” and would let me write. I also liked the idea of the distraction-free black screen.

    I choose Scrivener. I can’t always spell it correctly, but it worked for me. The editor wanted my book in .DOC format, so I simply exported it as RTF, added-in the screenshots, and sent it in from Word.

    So, no, I haven’t deleted Word yet. But I find I use it very little for writing, or in my job. In fact, when I get folks who send me something in email as a Word document (instead of simply composing it in the email itself), it drives me nuts.

    As an educator, I try and convince our teachers to use something simple like TextEdit rather than Word. The most important thing is the writing, not the ways you can format it for the printer. I find writing in “text editors” rather than layout programs is far more productive.

    Incidentally, this is why I dislike Pages. I agree with the other comment… write it up, and pass it to something more capable for output (like InDesign).

  • Jeff: writing in Quark! Why not? I think you might like Scrivener, though.


    Steven, have you read this about Word 5.1?

    Nice link. I wouldn’t choose to use Word 5.1a today even if I could, but it’s the best version I ever used.

    (Also: Monaco 10pt kicks yr fatty Monaco 14pt’s tubby rear.)

    Hey, it’s Fred who has it at 14pt. My Monaco is at a very reasonable 12pt. Because 10pt Monaco on my 24″ desktop screen would be well-nigh invisible, see?

  • Tadhg

    Another Scrivener convert here. Pages for the fancy stuff, Final Draft for screenplays, but Scrivener for the writing of pretty much everything else. It’s just so wonderfully simple that I expect MS will try and cop all of its best bits before long.

  • Speaking of WordPerfect 5.1, it runs great in DOSbox under OSX:


  • I am an admitted Scrivener fan. What I like about Scrivener that a standard word-processor or text editor does not include is the ability to write in a non-linear manner. Scrivener allows all the separate bits/snippets to be organized however you want. The second bit of magic is temporarily allowing you to group whatever bits you want together. Organization using a standard linear wordprocessor left me befuddled, because I would invariably have a great idea that was important to the piece but not necessarily related to what I was writing. Scrivener allows me to write my thoughts however illogically they appear and then I can work on the correct placement and transitions later. Full screen edits, corkboards, keywords, split views all add a great deal of depth to a well thought product, but the conceptual breakthrough is that this program allows me write what I want, and then to string together my thoughts in an easily organized manner and for what it has done for my writing, the cost is a steal.


  • Foofy

    Just for reference: Word (on Windows, at least) has a full screen mode accessible from the View menu.

  • Chris

    Many people agree that revision 5.1a, specifically, was the best version of Word

    These people would be wrong. The best version of Word was 4.0. The unnecessary cruft started with Word 5. It marked the start of the proliferation of ugly toolbars, for one thing.

  • Foofy

    Another Word tip: Escape the page metaphor by using Outline View (View menu). Use tab and shift+tab for headings and structure, and control+shift+n for body text.

  • SteveT

    Hmm… how does one prepare to sound like an ass?

    Pop open TextEdit, and hit ctrl+option+command+8.
    Stretch out the window ’til it’s nice and large.
    Start typing.
    If you like what you’ve written, go ahead and save as rtf.
    Didn’t cost much huh?
    I write like this all of the time.
    No it doesn’t have some of the bells & whistles of the other packages, but if you truly want simplicity…

  • Some of these word processors sound wonderful – but what is there out there for the unfortunate writer using Windows (or linux) that’s also tired of Word?

    Writer, as mentioned in the comments, is nice – but I wouldn’t trust my documents to an unknown web service(no offense, just being prudent).

    Why is Mac getting all the love? I want some Windows authoring love! :-)

    PS – your spam karma 2 system seems to be throwing PHP errors.

    [sorry about that – SP]

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  • Matt

    What I found most interesting was the actual example text in the screenshot. Especially the last line of the second paragraph.

  • Niran:

    I would invariably have a great idea that was important to the piece but not necessarily related to what I was writing. Scrivener allows me to write my thoughts however illogically they appear and then I can work on the correct placement and transitions later.

    Yes! I find that very useful too.


    Pop open TextEdit, and hit ctrl+option+command+8.
    Stretch out the window ’til it’s nice and large.

    Yes – for me that’s nearly good enough. But you still see all the menu and scrollbar crap. (Also, Apple changed ctrl-opt-cmd-8 at some point, either between 10.2 and 10.3 or 10.3 and 10.4, so it stopped being monochrome and did a fancy reversal of colours as well, which I hated.)

    Sorry to anyone who tried to come here last night when the server was borked. Anyone referred from Daring Fireball or Digg (couple of hundred comments over there, some interesting) should now be seeing the Coral Cache page, which hopefully will keep loads reasonable.

  • For a windows download alternative to online Writer, the freeware Q10 http://baara.com/q10/ is retro-minimalist-cool (if you’re into that sort of thing)

    Great article Steve.

  • Another program that combines a full-screen mode and “projects” of multiple pages is MacJournal. I’ve been using it for years now as my notes and planning tool for my business.

    For documents which need better formatting, I use Mellel, which is lightweight yet has a good set of tools.

  • Yeah I hate word too. Imho wordperfect 5.1 for dos was fantastic. It was lean, powerful and courier new by default, everything word isn’t. There are a few features which are great about word, such as its pseudo regex replace and its ability to copy/paste formatting from web pages which you can then easily edit.

    Excel is my real crack tho. VBA + spreadsheets is hard to give up on.

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  • Personally, I like to use NisusWriter Pro in full screen mode for writing. If you set up your styles in advance it will use them to display while writing. I haven’t found a way yet, however, to show a word count while you are in full screen mode.

    I think the reason I prefer NWP is because I personally don’t like working with a black background–black on white works best for me.

    I’ve often wondered what a word processor from the OmniGroup would look like? More than just about any other software company, they seem to be able to strike the right balance between a great (and extensive) feature set, while making the user experience clean and intuitive.

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  • Yeah, I use Word only when absolutely required. I mainly use LaTeX and Vim these days.

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  • justcorbly

    Norm, why should anyone pay for software features they don’t need? Why should anyone learn to use, or avoid, software features they don’t need?

    More choice is better than less choice.

  • RobH

    As has been previously mentioned, LaTex is a good text-based alternative, particularly in combination with the SFFMS macro package, which supports novel and short story manuscript (typescript) formatting.

    Although I’ve been a Word user for many years, I will not willingly do so again, as it’s just too expensive, bloated and feature-ridden for my simple use. As has been said of the dancing bear, the miracle is not that Word works (bear dances) well, the miracle is that Word works (bear dances) at all….

  • Jim

    Back in the Word 4.0 days, I preferred Microsoft Write. It had a simple interface, the normal formatting stuff, handled columns, would even do a stupid mail merge. The application itself was relatively small and quick, it saved .doc format files, and was considerably cheaper. Microsoft could have done nothing to that code other than update the document filters and make it a universal binary and people would still use it, I think. That was their best word processor effort. What? Something usable and useful? Kill it.

    If Microsoft added columns and mail merge to WordPad in Windows, would people use Word?

    I used Nisus Writer in the OS 8 days. I loved it then. I have not tried the new incarnation but the old one had some wonderful writer’s tools. I have Scrivener but mainly use it for organizing my notes. I’ll try it for my writing.

  • Diane J

    I agree passionately about the horrors of Word. But what’s the matter with Appleworks? Would Scrivener, say, be better?
    I’d appreciate device on this. I’m writing long texts- novels. Thanks

  • Nat


    Also, Apple changed ctrl-opt-cmd-8 at some point, either between 10.2 and 10.3 or 10.3 and 10.4, so it stopped being monochrome and did a fancy reversal of colours as well, which I hated.

    Have you checked out Nocturne? It’ll do the white-on-black thing with adjustable colors, from full monochrome to your choice of color tints.

    It’s wonderfully useful, especially for a free tool.

  • Steve Griffith

    I couldn’t agree more, especially with the comment about the mysterious, mind of its own formatting that Word is prone to. Dropping an image or table in seems to unleash inexplicable formatting issues. Making changes and revisions to one part of the document seems to cause inexplicable changes elsewhere – double space converted to single space etc.

    I am converting to the new Apple Pages for most of my stuff. Now if it would just work with bibliography software, it would rock.

  • Steve Griffith

    Diane – try the new Apple Pages that comes with iWorks. Love it. Currently using it for a book and it is a welcome relief from Word.

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  • Diane:

    But what’s the matter with Appleworks? Would Scrivener, say, be better?

    Well, it’s not really a question of “better”, but what you find more congenial to the creative process. Give Scrivener a demo run and see what you think.

    Nat – Nocturne is wonderful! Thanks for the link.

    Sorry about the continued outages. Now on alternative hosting, which might help.

  • Thanks for this post and thanks to everyone who’s trying out WriteRoom. I’ve just created a new discount code ‘poole’ for WriteRoom that will give you a 30% off discount when ordering WriteRoom. Feel free to share the code, it will expire on Sept 8th.

  • I had a very similar epiphany a while ago… after a long time on Word, I realised I didn’t enjoy it At All….


    I’ve needed a few bits and bobs Writeroom doesn’t have, tables and so on, and Nisus Writer Pro both has a fullscreen mode and the ability to do that only if and when I need it. And it’s default file format is RTF…

  • Hey, I’ve never had a discount code named after me before. ;)

  • has never produced anything with any quality.

    What about Excel?

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  • nv

    Another plug for Mellel from Redlex. It just keeps getting better and better.

    I’ve been using it for three years now, and it has *never* crashed, even while handling seventy-odd page documents with multiple note flows, etc., etc. It is much more responsive than Word.

    There’s a learning curve, but anyone who has ever styled a webpage using CSS would find it immediately intuitive, and anyone who hasn’t would find it takes about thirty minutes to get moving. Good forums, too.

  • Thanks to this nice post by Joe Malchow, I learn of another alternative for our Windows brethren: the free DarkRoom. Also Q10, recommended upthread by Sanjay, looks pretty good.

    I am loving Nocturne, which I belatedly realise is by the same genius who created the indispensable Quicksilver.

  • Hi Steven,
    I just came over from the Scrivener forum.
    This is a great article that took a lot of words right out of my mouth (or from my keypad?). Recently I wrote a bit about Scrivener on my website, but since you dwell deeper into certain aspects I left out, I added a link to your blog on my page.

    Another software suggestion: For formatting (whenever it is required) I use Nisus Writer Pro, a very elegant app, that doesn’t scare you with its palettes as Mellel does. With Scrivener and NWP nobody will ever need Word again.

    PS: Beautiful music here too!


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  • Count me as another member of the pro-Scrivener camp. It makes it easy to write without distraction (well, software distraction) and go from a first rough idea to a polished finished product. I like it.

    I’ve got a review on my site (which is actually shorter than this post).

  • Mikkel Winther Jensen

    I am a WriteRoom user almost exclusively now. Oh, yes, I do copy and paste my text into Word to format the text with headers and footnote’s as demanded by my University, but when it comes to crunching out those papers and exam assignments nothing beats WriteRoom in terms of promoting concentration and productivity. I must honestly say that Word has always baffled me. I used it only for a few years, mainly between 2000 and 2003 in College and I never had anything good come out of these encounters, as I simply couldn’t concentrate. When I started at my current study I just knew I had to do something about it, and even used TextEdit for a while until I found WriteRoom.

    Now, I even also use it to take notes while at lectures. The green writing on a black background is perfect for a dark room with my backlight turned down to the lowest setting to save my battery life and the lack of distraction on the screen means that I can concentrate on the lecture at hand.

  • Ever since I used a beta of WriteRoom I fell in love with it. I’ve spent too much time worrying about away messages and current iTunes tracks, and being forced into writing “tunnel vision” really helps.

    I’ve written seven or eight short stories in it…but I still hold on to Word, like a recovering alcoholic who keeps a bottle of whiskey buried away behind the old rags in the garage.

    I’ve gotta kick the habit.

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  • Over the last 8 months I’ve tried most of the writing programs mentioned in the comments. What a rich time it is to be a writer who uses a Mac. Avenir, WriteRoom, Ulysses and Jer’s Novel Writer are all great tools, as is Mellel. But Scrivener was the one I ended up buying. It just works best for the way I write.

    A feature that no one has mentioned is that Scrivener lets you mark up text and export it to LaTeX or HTML. It is a bit more involved to write just a page or two in Scrivener than in some of the other editors, so I often dash off text in BBEdit. But for longer documents that require research, extensive notes and re-organizable sections Scrivener’s incredible.

    Now that Pages works with Word’s change tracking features, I use that to trade files back and forth with my editor, who doesn’t even know that I’m no longer using Word.

    Scrivener for complex documents, Pages for editing and formatting and BBEdit for short text, what a treasure of excellent tools. And with others just as good for those with different writing needs, it’s bye-bye Word. It’s been nice knowin’ ya.

  • Chris

    I do love Scrivener’s UI and overall concept, but its LaTeX export is a little underdeveloped at present. I wish you could write custom export plugins directly, rather than having to export to MultiMarkdown and then munge that into LaTeX. Why not just export to XML and let someone write an XSLT to get to LaTeX. That’s much more practical than having to parse MMD. As it’s set up right now, the LaTeX export is really designed more or less just to meet the needs of the MultiMarkdown guy who helped develop it. For instance, only supporting the use of the “memoir” LaTeX class is a strange choice, since that’s not not one of the more common document classes and has an additional learning curve on top of the standard LaTeX classes.

    With just a little bit more work in this area, Scrivener could really be a killer tool for scholars as well as writers. It’s almost there now, and still well worth considering. I just wish it had direct XML export.

  • I don’t use MMD/LaTeX myself but AIUI you can modify the default XLSTs used by Scrivener/MMD or write your own: see eg this post on L&L’s forums.

    Michael Engler: thanks!

    MattT: haiku reviews are a nice idea, as long as you aren’t getting paid by the word. ;)

    I’m with Adam Kotkso in disagreeing with the claim that Microsoft has never produced anything of quality, though i’m not an Excel user so can’t comment on that. Still, Word was quality up until version 6. Also, IE4.5 & 5 on Mac OS 8-9 were pretty slick.

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  • All reasons why I keep my Win 98 machine hanging around: it is the only thing these days that will run Wordperfect 5.1 for DOS. Yes DOS because it provides just the environment you describe: full screen editing, monochrome, and without the distractions of “just a little web surfing” or “a few minutes of solitaire.” Thanks for promoting some viable alternatives to Word.

  • Before embarking on my master thesis I tried several word processing options. I finally ended up with using VIM, VIM-LaTeX-suite and LaTeX. This way I can concentrate on content and structure, leaving formatting to the TeX engine.

    One interesting approach I tired was using HTML and CSS coupled with Prince[1]. Writing HTML was a bit to verbose for my needs compared to LaTeX. LaTeX breaks passages into paragraphs by looking at linebreaks. HTML on the other hand needs a anchor and a closing anchor: .

    [1]: http://www.princexml.com/

  • Thanks for a great article.
    Anybody remember Wordstar (horrible thing!)? I could make that product do almost anything I wanted and can do the same with Word. As I get deeper into some serious web development and blogging, all I want is a good text editor, and not the bloated set of word tools which just get in the way.
    You have given me some good ideas.

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  • I wish I wrote as eloquently as you on the subject, but Word drives me to distraction, violence and (most worryingly) limited productivity.

  • editorkid

    As someone who used Word on the Mac since 1.x on his little 512KE, I’ve never understood anyone’s love for Word version 5.

    I mean, look at that screen shot. How are all of those tool bars, all of those redundant buttons, “minimalist”?

    Word 4 was the last good version.

  • I used (1984) my first PC with word 1.0 and droped my Olivetti off.
    That first computer was a Xerox with 2 floppy disk, and a blackandwhite screen.
    But I loved it.
    In that time I used MAc aswell, but this is other story.


  • editorkid

    Oh, huh, scrolling back for the first time, I see Chris and I are in agreement. Chris, if we’re ever in the same place at the same time, I’ll buy ya a beer and we’ll mock these Word 5 fans.

  • I mean, look at that screen shot. How are all of those tool bars, all of those redundant buttons, “minimalist”?

    Mmm, well… ;) IIRC you didn’t have to have that all on that the same time. And it was, ah, at least black-and-white. It’s still minimalist compared to today’s toolbars, especially the atrocity that is the ribbon. (As 16:10ish displays become more popular, vertical screen space becomes more valuable, so wasting it like this is really amazing.)

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  • {Sigh} More interesting commentary on “Journalists” :-)

    My introduction to “words on computers” was introducing a new computer system at a wire service agency. That’s when I first realised that many journalists are technically challenged by a typewriter.

    Many (probably most…) journalists are so computer-illiterate that the users we help on the newsgroups would run rings around them. But they retain a journalistic hubris that would otherwise be described as “arrogance”.

    Journos typically fire off 600 words of misspelled unpunctuated poorly-structured inanity, then grab a copy of the newspaper, look at their article in beautifully-formatted, correctly typeset, flowing prose and think “I did that!”. Not most of it, they didn’t. What they *did* was fire off an ASCII file that may or may not have contained the germ of an idea.

    Journalists (and I used to be one…) will tell you with great and portentous arrogance that TextEdit with a word-count is “all you ever need”. Well, yeah: it’s all THEY can ever cope with, because it’s all that THEY ever do.

    The rest of us need something a lot more powerful… :-)


  • I’m glad you were able to get that off your chest. But what does it have to do with this post? ;)

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  • I love WriteRoom. I will be checking out Scrivener for sure. I’d rather write on paper and scan than use Word and it’s lovely auto-formatting and screwy interface.♦

  • I wrote probably 3,000 stories for Aero-News from about 1999 to early 2006. After trying to do them in Word and having weirdness inserted by the program choke the one-off CMS, over and over again, I changed to BBEdit.

    I can’t speak for anyone else but I write better prose (not that daily aviation/technical news is a threat to Shakespeare’s reputation) in a plain text editor. I have found all your various suggestions interesting and will try several of them.


  • Ian

    Wow, fantastic article indeed, very well weighted.

    Here is another voice for Scrivener. I think text editors like BBEdit, Writeroom, Q10 (nice find for my PC using friends!), Textmate are great minimalist enviroments. And BBEdit/Textmate are full on byte wranglers – wrestle that UTF8 into submission. Scrivener gets the magic of writing just right. A simple space that grows to fit your material. The flexibility of research notes, references, pulling in disparate inspiration into a single elegant interface. Feeling structures build. You can use Scrivener as a blank sheet just fine, and if you need deeper layers, it gives them a-plenty. For the more scientific, outlining keeps you in order, bibliographic references can be copy/pasted from your reference manager software, you can keep research PDFs in line. Very neat you can dynamically search through all your research materials (including text of PDFs) in one place!

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  • I can only relate to this on one level: price! Many software programs, including Microsoft Office, are extremely expensive. However, I’ve been using Word 2007 for a few months now and absolutetly love the new features (especially ‘ribbons’)!

    Spencer Ferguson

  • Arjun Rajagopalan

    There is no mention of the other OS: Linux and its flavours; Ubuntu specifically. Every feature that has been discussed is available on gedit (http://www.gedit.org). And, its free. In a decade or more that I have repeatedly tried, I have NEVER liked Word. Early on, Amipro was a real neat programme that ended up being swallowed by Lotus, made obese and non-functional as Wordpro, and then lost in the abyss when Lotus disappeared from view in the folds of IBM.

  • Steve

    Thanks for highlighting JDarkroom for windows users, in addition
    to Q10 I mentioned earlier.

    I reckon Q10 is the most mature of these, (and doesn’t need java, or .net framework for the similar Dark Room). It’s quite customizable, and has an optional live word count, a word count target as a %, and a timer letting you how many words you’ve written in a specified period. Makes one into a writing maching ;-)

    I just wrote a book review with it – was truly a liberating experience (compared with bloat-ware Word)

    Though with the plethora of writing tools for macs, esp reading the scrivener
    accolades, I’m almost tempted to switch to a mac (but have resisted
    its proprietary hardware. Time to investigate dual booting OS’s…).

    There appear to be some windows alternatives to scrivener such as pagefour or yWriter, but seem to fall short of what scrivener can do.

  • I’ve decided to pack up my Microsoft life altogether and move over to Linux permanently:

    Things have changed considerably from a few years ago and there’s pretty much a clone of anything you want in the Open-Source world.


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  • Mr Hei

    You can use Word (pre 2007) to do this too, albeit with a little work.

    Switch to web layout, set your right and left margins in a inch or so, and then set it to view in fullscreen. The only distraction is a small box with ‘Close Fullscreen’ written on it.

    But yes, Word sucks.

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  • Rowan

    I’d use Scrivener or Writeroom, however neither of these apps feature the Microsoft Office Assistant Paperclip. How is it that no one but Microsoft implemented such a useful tool in their software?

  • That is a very powerful point. About the only thing, indeed, that could improve Writeroom would be an animated piece of office stationery popping up and saying in a speech balloon, preferably in Comic Sans: “It looks like you’re writing a sarcastic review/blog post about political language/strange book. Would you like help with that?”

    Damn right I would.

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  • David G

    The preview site for Mac Office 2008 promises, “Authors will create books more quickly”. Perhaps you better switch back? ;-)

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  • D Jones

    Hear hear.

  • Zed

    For me, nothing beats the elegance and power of vim. Interspersed text and markup – that’s the way to do it.

    I loathe Microsoft Word, and the OpenOffice.org user interface is also terrible.

    Scrivener looks really nice though, and its features really hit home about how primitive and awful is Microsoft Word.

  • Seeing a preview of Microsoft Office 2008 was enough to make me realize that 17 years with Microsoft Word was just too long. I’m going to go back to Scrivener, which I first bought when it was still in beta. I’m looking forward to that plain white screen.

    As for the Paper Clip — well, it takes the prize as the worst-implemented Help feature in any software program. NO, I DON’T WANT HELP WRITING A F—ING LETTER!

  • brian

    Word 5.5 can still be had from the source.


    Run this exe from a command line with the “-d” parameter to create the setup directories correctly. (Ahhh… pkzip from a command line brings back memories)

  • althalus

    I’d have to second all the LaTeX votes here, but add one thing – LyX. Think of it as a nice frontend for LaTeX. Hides most of the markup and lets you concentrate on just the writing it’s self.


    I replaced “word processors” with Lyx/LaTeX years ago.

  • George

    # RTF is actually proprietary, originally developed by DEC and now owned by Microsoft, but it’s so widespread now that (fingers crossed) they won’t be able to break it. «

    Oh, so NOT true…. There is NO standard too entrenched for Micro$oft to be able to break it. “Embrace, extend, and screw it up for others..” is their mantra. Look at Kerberos, top posting, etc.

    Just hope they don’t decide we suddenly need to drive on the left side of the road, or switch to forks on the other side of the plate.

    There are already multiple versions of RTF, and I’m sure more are coming. It’s whatever they want it to be on a given day. See:
    http://www.robweir.com/blog/20.....ayana.html & elsewhere.

  • Orclev

    In response to Eivind Uggedal:

    Prince looks very interesting and I’ll have to give it a try, but I’m thinking it could really shine when combined with a nice HTML editor like NVU or Bluefish:

  • As a user of both, Microsoft Word and Scrivenier, I would like to say that I really love Scrivenier and WriteRoom, and I think they are perfect in most of cases. However, Word is a more general-purpose tool. For example, I need Word (or another powerful editor) to write certain science manuscripts, including mathematical equations, figures, automatic indexes and references, etc.

  • eh?

    I live in Linux, and Scrivener may someday be available for us( someone posted on /. that this is being worked-on ),so for-now, we’ve little alternative.

    However…Writer’s Cafe has one killer-app for us Linuxers( because we have no ability to remain in our gloriously configurable OS while running Mac sw ) . . . it’s Story Lines app is the bees knees, compared with anything else I’ve seen in linux-native software.

    ( I’m NOT running Wine on any machine I need to trust – win-viruses can run in it too, trashing user’s stuff! )


    They’ve a limited demo, try it your own self.

  • I love Word for one feature: when reading documents in unfamiliar languages I can right-click on a word and see a list of synonyms. That is one of the best language-learning tools I know.

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  • Mitchell

    People keep complaining about word “getting in the way” – is that code for “i have undiagnosed attention deficit disorder”? I’ve always used word – sure it has features I’ll never use, so guess what, I don’t use them. I’ve never had serious issues with it messing up documents or loosing data. And as far as the supposedly out dated “physical page layout” just choose the “normal layout” and it is just continuous whiteness. You can also turn off all the toolbars in the view menu, so you’ll have a very simple box to write in with only the usual menu options above (file, edit, view, etc). Or, if you’re really easily distracted, just turn on full screen mode and you have a white screen with a cursor – doesn’t get much simpler than that.
    is it that you don’t like word or that you’re just kind of anti-big business and so are bashing Microsoft products? The latter is fine, but you don’t need to bash word to say that you’d just rather support a smaller operation.

  • You youngsters! I well remember in the days of yore with my faithful 286 DOS machine at my side, using WordPerfect, the big blue screen in front of me and nothing else. I even sprang for a third party app that turned the big empty blue screen into a big empty white screen, so much like a blank sheet of typing paper. There were arguments about the horror of the blank screen, how it interfered with the writing process. I kid you not. All those little buttons this crew despises are the direct result of the years of complaint over the keystroke commands WordPerfect and WordStar users had to memorize. Once again we see one generation’s blessing becoming another generation’s curse.

    What do I use? I use Word. I also use NoteTab Pro. I use RoughDraft. I use two Windows clones of WriteRoom, DarkRoom and WestEdit. I use Open Office. And I tweaked AbiWord, turning it into a WriteRoom clone. I also use a pen and paper, and even the backs of envelopes. If you save in rich text format or as text files, you can swap stuff around to your heart’s content. Word seems to handle the final printout better than the others, so the final edit usually takes place there.

    R P Bird

    “You hunt the words, the words shouldn’t hunt you.”

  • internisus

    This was a fun read for me, as I’m planning eventually to purchase a Macbook of some sort simply so that I can use Scrivener. I’ve been excited about that program since before it was finished!

  • Heidi

    How is it that no one but Microsoft implemented such a useful tool in their software?

    Is this some kind of sick joke?

    I’ve always used word – sure it has features I’ll never use, so guess what, I don’t use them.

    Neither do I, which is why I find the idea of Word taking three whole ENTIRE minutes to load so unacceptable after paying $147 for it. It takes another 15 minutes to configure it to not do all the annoying features that are supposed to be “helpful.”

  • Hilary

    Thanks for the heads up on these great applications! I wish I’d known about them ages ago.

  • Lawrence

    Happily I haven’t had to use Word for years. But I am still cursed with openoffice, for those times when I’m sent Word files. It’s nice and all that openoffice is open source, but the bloat and gui interface is just a bad paradigm whether propagated by Bill Himself or the opensource community.

    Latex is swell, especially when mixed with bibtex for referencing (if you need to do that). As for the editor, I prefer Nedit. Nedit can run on anything. Windows, linux, VMS,.. you name it.

  • sw

    Today, I have installed and quickly fallen in love with Scrivener! And downloaded Trigger Happy!

  • What an amazing day you have had!

  • Johhny

    go to system preferences, universal access, set it for negative image and damn if the whole screen aint black and images in negative , or zoom in and make it twenty feet tall , i like to write in white text on black in negative when i imagine there has been a nuclear holocaust .

  • Johhny

    (On a mac)

  • spammer

    It is literacy suicide not to write your articles, books, and material in MS Word. I would choose MS Word over any program out there.

  • Nick

    To rephrase spammer’s comment:
    It is literaly suicide to write your articles, books, and material in MS Word. I would choose MS Word only if it was the one program out there.

  • Alex Denham

    I found my Starwriter whilst clearing my garage yesterday. Good times :)

  • Alex Denham

    Subsequently, one of my neighbours stole said Starwriter from my garage. Boo!

  • Bad neighbour!

  • Gregor

    ‘For some reason the fact that this is called an Elektrische Schreibmaschine in German makes me feel all nostalgic for the ultrasmooth Kraftwerk future it seems I was living back then without even realising it, tapping out theatre reviews on a six-line green LCD (not even backlit)’

    Being brought up on 70s-80s sci-fi films, I can’t help but be disappointed in nanotechnology and laptops; of course it is practical but I was kind-of hoping that supercomputers would be reel-to reel-magnetic tape operated, bakelite or melamine monstrosities that would belch dot matrix print outs.

    On a more relevant note, I have linux on one computer; I prefer their word processing document to word and surely that says something about the limits of the free market?

    Anyway, hope your new book is going well.

  • I’ve been using WriteRoom and Scrivener for a few months and I agree. I almost never use Word anymore, just a few times at work to comment the work of colleagues.

    I have also tested a similar software to WriteRoom called MyTexts, it’s just as awesome as WriteRoom.

    – Jens

  • Simon

    I’ve used MS Word to format 3 books and must admit it’s a bloated piece of software. Why WordProcessor won’t separate the content from the styling beats me and why people insist on using it is another mystery. What makes things worse is that one of the main formats these days is HTML and both MS Word and Pages ’09 are atrocious in conversion. How on earth can two highly used programmes export such crap HTML? Unless they want to keep people locked into their proprietary format. I’m now moving everything to Multimarkdown from which I can convert the base document into just about any format I need including MS Word!

  • Mander

    @ZapPow: What about shortcut keys? I have customized all my word processors to use shortcuts for stuff like heading levels and captions, using the same ones where I can. For example, I set up Word and OpenOffice are ctrl+1, ctrl+2, etc. for headings 1 and 2. This was very easy with Word 2003 although I only use version 2007 and up under duress, so I don’t know how easy it is to do in that version. It’s still pretty easy in OpenOffice, though.

    I use Kile to write LaTeX documents and although it’s not quite as easy, it does have an auto text feature so that when you start to type \chapter{}, for example, you get a drop-down box after the first few letters so that you just have to type \cha+enter and the command is automatically entered with the cursor waiting between the parentheses.

    Anyway, on the actual topic of Word, I still have a bit of a love-hate relationship with it. So far I haven’t found anything that beats the “outline view” mode, which is my favorite way of writing, although I have learned to do without it. Aside from that it seems that Word is determined to get in your way and be hard to use for a person who doesn’t like to reach for the mouse every few minutes.

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  • JohnnyNull

    Textroom is very similar, runs on Windows, OSX, and Unix-like systems. http://code.google.com/p/textroom/

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  • I’m considering getting a copy of this : http://www.iawriter.com/

  • Haughtonomous

    Those who imply that Microsoft have produced something as imperfect and horrible as Word through sheer incompetence are missing the point. Word isn’t bad because MS can’t do better – they don’t want to do better. Upgrading Word is a revenue stream, they want people to be continually hungering for the next (‘improved’) version. If they produced something simple and elegant there would be no upgrade path to lock people into.

    It’s simple business sense, even though I detest them for it. Actually I don’t really detest them for it – I am aghast at the endless stream of suckers who fall for it. Caveat Emptor.

  • Writerguy

    Great article.

    I dumped Microsoft Word and moved to Xiosis Scribe last year. Word is a bloated app that has not seen any new innovation in at least 10 years (IMHO).

    Scribe is an easy to use word processor with mind mapping and outline view for planning, research tools including link to Mendeley, composer and layout. It has lots of productivity features for writers including a distraction free environment, quick clips, accent char help and more. You can configure the composer to be exactly like the darkroom.

    I haven’t missed word. I hated that ribbon thing they put on Word 2007 and had me searching for things than writing. Scribe is pretty cool that way with text labels on everything.

  • It appears you’ve found the perfect tool for writing. A sort of writer’s zazen – just words with no distraction and bloat.

  • Ted Brewster

    Way, way back in the days of CP/M and the old Byte magazine, Jerry Pournelle worked with Workman & Associates (Barry Workman) to “perfect” something called WRITE. Pournelle also wrote science fiction, often with Larry Niven, and wanted a simple, clean screen, as you describe. He stuck with WRITE for a long time. I bought a copy on his recommendation and remember writing him a letter about how dissatisfied I was with it.

    I also discovered that MS Word can be configured to offer a simple, blank screen for clean typing. It takes a few clicks here and there to do it, but it can be done. In fact, Darkroom for Windows is based on MS Word and uses a Word macro to set up the screen.

  • Cool! oldschool! :D

  • Massimo

    I have used many many (and I mean “many”) word-processors since 1984 and unless you just write text, and formatting, structure, styles, etc. etc. have no meaning to you, I have found no other product comes even close to Word 2010.

    It is like saying “I prefer MSPaint to Photoshop because all that fancy functionality clutters my creativity and distracts me”.

    If that concept applies to you, feel free to use a text editor to write, but don’t blog about it like this and confuse others.

  • Massimo: Formatting and styles don’t matter to me when I’m writing prose. For “structure”, Scrivener is far superior to Word.

    I’ll continue to blog however I please, thanks. ;)

  • Alfred E Neuman


    In Word: ALT+V, then u. Now you have full screen.

    If you want, set to “Draft View” or “Web View” first so you won’t have to look at page boundaries. Viola! Change text/background in Word to suit your taste.

    I had a Word looking/working like WriteRoom in a few seconds. Do you think this might have suited you?

    Just Sayin’

  • Al Phelps

    I must be getting old; I saw no mentions of Electric Pencil running in CP/M.

  • bVoqui

    I am old enough to remind of times when leading text format where 1) TELEX ( 5 bits code ) and 2) EBCDIC (6 bits code ) so I doubt anyone can be sure to be able to read 2011’s text in 30-50 years from now, when top sign will be chinese mao style.
    I am old enough to remind of times when best stores were paper tapes so I doubt that power-hungry cloud raid disk will not be shut down in 2041.
    Can your black and white screen store grayscale strokes?

  • For LaTeX with built in preview and links between pdf previewer and LaTeX text, check out OpenSource http://TUG.org/texworks editor Linux/MacOsx/Windows etc

  • Anonymous

    I’m very sorry to see all the trouble you’re getting through, but, there is a simpler solution to your problems: it’s called Windows. While you’re so busy looking for the best word processor, you might look into changing the crappy operating system called Mac OS and start enjoying work. And, no, I’m not working for Microsoft…

  • Mike

    Anonymous: I second that.
    Besides, Windows has a program called “notepad”.
    That would be THE tool for Steve..

  • Mike

    Oh, and moment of truth: .docx is actually an ISO standard these days..
    try renaming god-forbidden, MS-damned .docx to .zip, open it with… Whatever can open .zip on MacOS.. You’ll be surprised!

  • Mike:

    .docx is actually an ISO standard these days..

    Uh, except that no current version of MS Office is actually compatible with the standard that ISO approved, only with one it rejected.

    try renaming god-forbidden, MS-damned .docx to .zip, open it with… Whatever can open .zip on MacOS.. You’ll be surprised!

    I was actually surprised, despite myself, at what a godawful unreadable mess they make of the document.xml.

    And no, notepad doesn’t do what I want. But Q10 on Windows is very good!

  • Jax

    I agree on Q10 being an effing good word cruncher on the PC. There are a lot of variations on the cleanroom writing environment for OS X, but I’ve yet to find one which does Live Word Count, hard wrap at say 65 characters AND makes it decently easy to print a few pages. Last thing I tried was BBEdit and it does suck in the printing dept and is like killing ants with a proton cannon.

    Anybody has any tips on the printing? Being thinking I’d write the text and then dump into a Scribus template for printing.

  • City Dog

    Since we’re going down memory lane here, my first word processor was Perfect Writer, on a CP/M Kaypro. Brilliant, if complex, program. Long gone. My all-time favorite, though, is XyWrite III+, under DOS. Based on the mainframe publishing program, Atex, it was the best text editor ever. You youngsters will never have heard of it, but it was well-respected in its day.

    Now, on my Mac, I’m using Scrivener, and Bean, mostly, but I find uses for others … except Word, which I’ve never even had on my Mac.

    Word was actually a fine program, when it was first introduced. It’s architecture was quite advanced for its day. I used it for some twenty years, all on DOS/Windows. But as many have commented, over the years feature bloat crept in and the file structure became very unreliable. I don’t miss it at all now.

  • Jimmy Potter

    +1 for the combo LaTeX/Vim (I think there’s even a vim-clone completely customised for LaTeX, but I never used it, really). I’m a student, so I have to work on a 200$ Netbook (which I don’t think would even install MS Office 2007, with its single GB of RAM), so I run Ubuntu (fast boot up, with the wonderful ability to run OpenBox desktop manager, which opens nothing else than the application you tell it to: No network manager, no Windows Updater that loves to reboot Windows while you’re fullscreen. That is focusing.)
    Vim is speed-oriented for writing code, and LaTeX needs a boost in speed to be effective. With Vim plugins likes snippetMate you can type in “em” then Tab, you get \emph{} with the cursor between the {}, another tab gets you out of them! (You have to customise your snippets of course, for best efficiency with the way you work).
    You can customise all kinds of shortcuts and keybinding in Vim, one for compiling and previewing, with the pdf viewer of your choice (I use Ubuntu’s evince, in preview mode, that opens up instantly even on my so weak netboot).
    Of course this would like you to be a bit of a Linux guy, or to be willing to spend the time it takes to learn Vim, LaTeX, and a little Linux command line (just enough for LaTeX compiling, and how to open a viewer in command line).
    I’ve been using MS Word up to 2003, then I started using Adobe InDesign for making the important stuff, and kept using Office 2003 for letters and things I had to write quickly. Even now I still have Office 2003 with the (so practical..) compatibility patch, so that it can read (and completely mess up, in most cases) .docx files, since so many people I know are still sending me office documents.

  • Jax@176: what is missing for you from the printing functionality of WriteRoom etc? (Scrivener has more in the way of layout options.)

  • City Dog @177:

    Based on the mainframe publishing program, Atex, it was the best text editor ever. You youngsters will never have heard of it, but it was well-respected in its day.

    I admit I haven’t heard of XyWrite, but I used Atex at newspapers for a good few years: for pure text editing it was better than anything I know of that has replaced it.

  • Deron
  • Jax

    @Steven: What I needed was a way to control the margins of the text to avoid getting text that does not print correctly (getting upper part of a line on one page and the lower part on the next, for eaxmple). I need a bit of layout or a template options to fix the margins.

    I’ll do some more research. Or else I’ll just call it a day and say Bean is enough.

  • rustface

    There was a Word-killer on the Mac, circa 1993. It was called WriteNow!

    It fit on 1 floppy, and had only the features you really needed. Clean and well-implemented, too. At least 10 times faster than Word at everything. Ran on 1 MB RAM or less. And cost 1/8 the price.


    Not sure why it couldn’t quite break out…

  • A Pomera DM20 is a modern day single-purpose writing device:

  • Reflecting on this classic essay nearly five years later:


  • Jacky

    Oh, and moment of truth: .docx is actually an ISO standard these days..
    try renaming god-forbidden, MS-damned .docx to .zip, open it with… Whatever can open .zip on MacOS.. You’ll be surprised!

  • Steve High

    I compose in Write Room and, when I’m done, paste into Word for sharing with others. The world likes .doc and .docx formats, so I go along with the program. I also like a couple of things in Word not found in Write Room or Google docs:  Track Changes and Readability Statistics.

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